Unblinking Eye


Emotion in Photographs:
the Landscape Nude
by Norm La Coe

      It’s been 24 years since I took my gorgeous sun-tanned model with her auburn hair and splendid body to my favorite quarry, where the water glows aqua green.  The sunlight was soft and lovely.  A perfect model, perfect light, perfect location. 
       Developed, the frames looked magnificent.
       I proudly showed them to a good friend, who also photographs the nude. He looked through them with his loupe.  I waited for his praise.
       Instead, he looked at me with sympathy. “Norm,” he said, “you wasted your film.”
       Indignant, I argued with him.
       He just shook his head. “Look at her eyes. There’s nobody home.”
       I borrowed his lupe and looked at her face. In her eyes I saw absolute boredom.  In some frames, even amused contempt.
       So what is the punch line?  It’s this:  photography of the nude is not about skin.  Or body.  Or maybe getting laid by a naked girl.
       It’s about emotion. Spirit, heart, feeling.

       Okay, that’s a nice story.  It leads to the question for which I have only imperfect answers: How do we photograph emotion?
       Well, it seems obvious you have to get it out of your model.
       How to do that? Ahhh.  Photograph your lovers while they’re having fun.  If you can get your mind on how to focus.
       Or else, photograph your non-lovers when they’re having fun.
       Sounds easy.  For her, it isn’t.  She’s an American girl, and she knows you’re an American male. That means, she knows you are a predator who may pressure her for sex. She’s going to be alone with you, perhaps out somewhere miles from any other person. She is concerned about having to fight you off, even about rape.  And you expect her to go off alone with you and get naked?

       The first nude woman I photographed was a lover, 48 years ago.  Also the second.  And the
third. When I started making images with non-lovers, I ended up sleeping with some. Now, 128 women, 12 men and a half-dozen children later, I never sleep with people I photograph.  None of my best images were made with lovers.
       So how to you get non-lovers to have fun, when they are: naked. Vulnerable. Outdoors.  Worried about rape.  Worried about snakes. Worried about thorns.  Worried about sun burns in intimate places. Worried about dirt or sand in you-know-where.  ???
       So here are my True Rules.  I follow them in making images of the landscape nude.

True Rule 1. Never hit on your model, and let her know it.

       If you have sex on your mind, freeze it.  If your model knows you’re hungry, she may respond. In that case, you may get laid, but she won’t be inspired to make fine pictures. If she doesn’t respond to you, she’ll feel the pressure, and when you process your film, you may see tension, contempt, fear, or simply ... nothing in her eyes.  So let her know you’ll stay on your side of the camera. 

       One girl I know is a happy clown when she’s naked outdoors.  She auditioned to be in a well-known national magazine.  The magazine photographer pressured her for sex from the start. She didn’t like him. When one picture of her was published, I did not even recognize the stiff, cold woman on the page. I could not believe one man with a camera could fail so badly with a joyous girl. 
       My models know I’ll never hit on them.  It allows them confidence.  I’ve spent a hundred nights traveling with my models, one room, two beds, no sex.  Long-time friends. 
       You must have trust.  Loyalty.  Honesty.  Respect.  Admiration.
       Of course, she may get interested in you. If that happens, keep right on making pictures until the light is gone. Then, if you wish, let her make the moves. Or him.  Which leads to

True Rule 2. Give your model total control of what she does, and let her know she has it.

       I ask a girl to fly a thousand miles, travel hours in a car alone with me, go to a place she’s never been, take off her clothes, and then make images with power and emotion.
       Sure, and while we’re at it, how about bossing her around.  Show macho attitudes. Tell her she has to put up the tent, build a fire and make dinner, while you leer and lift a cold one.  Probably, your dinner will be burned and your images will be garbage.
       She can’t do her part well unless she knows she has control.
       I make an agreement.  I can suggestion anything, and my model is free to say “you idiot, that sucks.” My feelings aren’t hurt. She can suggest anything, and I can say “let’s do something else.” Her feelings aren’t hurt.  No one’s ego is on the line.  We can talk freely.

True Rule 3. Let her know what to expect.  Show her images you’ve made.  See which she responds to. If none, don’t work with her.

       Show her pictures of the place you’re taking her, if you can. Tell her about it. She will have to “wear” the place.  The more she knows about its shapes, textures and colors, the more emotionally ready she will be.

True Rule 4. Pay fairly for effort and results.

       I pay models, but I don’t use models who work for pay .  I want women who love to make exciting images. I don’t want someone with money on her mind when I want her to be aware of light and place.  However, pay keeps things on a professional basis. 
       I currently pay flat a fee to a model who works with me. I pay a bonus if the session yields one good, usable image.  I pay a larger bonus if it yields two or more good images.
A model knows this.  She has an incentive to deliver good images. She is motivated to find out what I want, what she needs to do. She is motivated to think: “Help him make good pictures.”

True Rule 5. Choose settings together.

       Suggest a location, let her look through your camera, try to make her see what you see. That way, she can think out how to fit herself to the place. If she’s not comfortable in a setting, move on.  It doesn’t matter what you think. The only thing that counts is how she feels.
       We all see countless numbers of outdoor nudes in which the person is simply stuck there, with no sense of belonging.  I like it when the image looks as though the person is supposed to be there.

True Rule 6. Make sure she understands outdoor light.

       If she’s facing the light, the sun makes her squint.  If she faces away, either you have the hassle of fill lights or reflectors, or you have dark silhouettes. I prefer no reflectors and no fill lights, because there’s less to remind her she’s working in front of a machine.  That lets her get into feelings, out of her mind, but also makes it tough to bring out the tonalities.
       Before you go, tell her to practice keeping her eyes open when she’s looking toward the sun. You only need a second.  Then she can squint until the next frame.

True Rule 7. Make her aware of her earth self.

       Humans have been around for at least 8,000 generations. Most of your model’s remote mothers did not have indoor plumbing, stoves, deoderant, navel rings and such stuff. Remote mothers lived much closer to this earth. Remind your model of that.
       I play a game with my models. “If you were an animal in this place, what kind of animal would you be?” Also, if a flower, what kind of flower?  What kind of tree?
       I am astonished at the answers: Snake. Eagle. House cat. Cheeta.  Leopard.  Horse.  Deer.  Song bird.  Friendly dog.
       The game enables her to get in touch with her more primitive self, to adapt to the setting, and move in it naturally.  That’s much better than having her silently worry about breaking a fingernail.  It also enables you to see her as a natural being who belongs in that place--not as a sexy, naked 21st century honey with an acrylic heart.

True Rule 8. Always protect your model.

       My model knows I carry a gun in my backpack, and I show her how to use it.  Many women say they don’t like guns, but I’ve found a girl with a gun in her hand likes the power, likes it a lot. She knows if necessary I will use that gun to protect her. In 27 years of working with the landscape nude, I’ve had to show it only twice when men came around, acting like they might like some sport.*
       There’s a simple way to deal with would-be rapists who come upon you in the wilderness.
       Kill them.
       For the record, my model knows what kind of animal I am:  I see myself as a big old gray wolf , ferociously protective of my territory and all its creatures, merciless to any predators who intrude. Wolves mate for life, raise their young together.  They play together.

True Rule 9. This one is most important.  Forget about photographing skin.  Photograph her feelings, her spirit.

       Admire your model.  Respect your model. Make her know she’s the best thing that ever happened in your life. It’s okay to fall a little bit in love with your model (just don’t act on it, and don’t tell her). She’ll respond. 
       Make her feel not only beautiful, but strong, female, a woman for all ages, for all places.  Let her know you want to see her spirit, her heart, her feelings, her dreams.
       More than once, a woman who worked with me afterwards described the experience as “spiritual.”

True Rule 10.  Stop being an American male predator.

       Americans are low-life sexist bigots and predators. The evidence of that is beyond dispute. American men are cruel to women. Our culture values “sexy” more than smart, useful, loyal, honest or kind. Women are paid less. The percentage of women raped has increased steadily for 50 years; more than half of all victims are children. I calculate that one girl of every 20 is dead or permanently damaged by sexual assault in childhood.  One of three female children is significantly “molested.”
       Americans like the sexual plundering of their women, or they’d stop it. Churches preach jezebels, temptresses and sin; churches allow themselves to become havens for predators who pretend faith in order to gain access to victims.  The law likes sexist bigotry: Americans spend billions defending and glorifying rapists, nothing protecting victims.

       We who are American men have created a culture in which every woman is a victim of sexist bigotry. Your model, if female, knows this. She expects to be pressured for sex. She fears being raped. Two of the women I’ve worked with were attacked at knife point (not by me); others were repeatedly raped, the majority as children.  That is a fact of life for an American woman.
       Therefore, make her safe. Give her a chance to “bloom”, to reveal her real self, to not be suppressed or threatened, to not be cautious or afraid.  Invite her to show you and your camera the inner woman, the person she truly is.  Ask her to reveal her dreams, her integrity, her passion, her spirit, her faith.
       If she knows she is safe, respected, admired, if she is encouraged, if she knows you will really try to make fine images of her spirit (not just her tits), then she just might make images which are stunning in beauty revealed.
       For you, it can become an intense, marvelous experience to photograph a woman who is really involved in her setting, is “wearing” the light.  Who is complete in her joy.
       If you ever have one photo session when that happens, you will be forever changed.

* Postscript 04-04-05:  Years ago, I was skinny dipping in a remote place with a woman I loved.  We were stalked by a big, nasty man, who fully intended rape.  It took both of us to fight him off, and it was a near thing.  If that ever happens again, my would-be rapist will either be running for his life, or he will be severely damaged.  Also, for 30 years my charity work has been with victims of rape and incest.  I am merciless with preditors.  It is an absolute rule that a man takes care of those who depend on him.  NLC

My friend and model Leda said this:

To me it is not a physical thing that is being captured. It is spiritual.

It is a message, to remember my connection with all that is upon this Earth. To remember the honesty and truth of my spirit.  To be true to what I am.

To allow my spirit to sing, to celebrate, and to rejoice.

It is so simple.

Article and images copyright 2004 by Norm LaCoe.
No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of the author.

The Landscape Nude Part Two
Photographs by Norm La Coe
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